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MediaApril 1, 2021

The toxic on-air history of commercial radio in New Zealand


With commercial radio culture under a microscope, Alex Casey assembles a list of on air scandals from the last two decades. 

This article contains distressing descriptions of a sexual nature, please take care.

This month, allegations of a toxic culture have oozed forth from the world of commercial radio in New Zealand, in part thanks to an anonymous Instagram account set up initially to encourage people to share their stories from the New Zealand music industry. Two MediaWorks employees have since been stood down amid an investigation into claims of sexual harassment, with a host of one of the company’s major shows handing in his resignation on Monday

Earlier in the month, a former employee of MediaWorks’ station The Rock characterised her experience at the station as a “tornado of toxic masculinity”. While we don’t know the individuals involved, or the nature of the complaints, what we can say for sure is that commercial radio has a rich, well-documented history of controversial, envelope-pushing on-air moments – often at the expense of women – that could certainly be characterised as toxic. 

Here is a charming collection from the last two decades. 

August 2000: Channel Z apologises after an announcer from the station phoned an elderly woman to ask her questions about a lingerie commercial that her granddaughter had appeared in. The complainant described the questions as “provocative and distasteful” and that the woman was “obviously somewhat distressed by the line of questioning”. Channel Z acknowledged that their radio personalities might “stretch the boundaries of good taste”.

September 2000: The Edge host Iain Stables is sued for defamation by TV presenter April Ieremia after falsely stating on the station’s website that not only was he married to her, but that they “did it on the TV2 bus”. The Herald reports at the time that details of their fictitious relationship had been broadcast by Stables for over four years, with Ieremia alleging that Stables had “hurt her career and caused emotional distress”. 

March 2001: Iain Stables holds a “Kiss my arse for a backstage pass” contest at The Edge’s Summer Jam concert, wherein he drops his trousers and asks a woman to kiss his backside in front of over 10,000 people gathered at Westpac Trust Park.

December 2001: During a breakfast radio competition based around unusual ways to wake someone up, Channel Z broadcasts audio of a male competitor attempting to wake up his female flatmate in her bedroom by inserting her vibrator inside her as she sleeps: 

Hosts: Now why don’t you describe to us what you’re going to do.
Neil: I’m going to go into my flatmate’s room and wake her up with her vibrator. It’s huge mate. This thing’s the size of my freaking arm.
Hosts: Okay. And exactly what… Is it making a loud noise or are you going to what?
Neil: It’s just your standard vibrator noise I presume.
Hosts: Are you going to put it right by her ear are you?
Neil: No mate. It’s going in.
Hosts: Oh, no, no, no, Neil.
Neil: You’ve got to do these things properly mate.

Read the full horrific transcript here. Although the hosts are quick to note that the flatmate gave her approval for the broadcast, a BSA complaint is later made that “the concept of the action in itself demonstrated contempt towards women… The action involved serious criminal behaviour which was trivialised by treating it as a joke.” Channel Z is fined $2000 by the BSA. 

March 2002: An announcer on The Edge phones a woman selling National Geographic magazines, explaining that he has a fetish for “topless Papua New Guinea women” and would like to purchase magazines containing these pictures. When the woman says she’s about to go out, the announcer asks where she is going and how she is getting there. A listener later complains to the BSA, claiming that “it is not alright to call women with sexual innuendo and threats” and The Edge is ordered to pay a $500 fine. 

February 2003: During a competition called “Cleaning Out Your Closet” on The Edge, a caller reveals that the man she is sleeping with is her half-brother, but he doesn’t know. She then phones the man on air to tell him, a call which is recorded and broadcast by The Edge with the man’s voice changed. A complaint laid to the BSA describes how, after the call to her half-brother, the woman was upset and the Edge presenters appeared to offer her consolation and reassurance. But after she hung up they joked about how listeners “could end up like (the woman’s name), rooting your brother”. 

March 2005: Riffing on a complaint the station received by someone named Chris Peacock, The Edge airs a mock advertisement for “crispy cock” featuring quotes such as “it was so good I had seven crispy cocks last weekend” and “it was so big it made me gag”. Following the ad, the hosts discuss how they had to convince a young female employee to voice the quotes for the ad. “He had to get some young lady called Rebecca who is just a sweetheart here, very innocent, very sweet…she sometimes has to do things she doesn’t want – like this.”

August 2007: A BSA complaint is laid against Radio Hauraki for suggesting that then prime minister Helen Clark has testicles. “Paul Holmes, you know he is one testicle down, he wants a testicle transplant… great news for Paul this morning, Helen Clark said she would donate one of hers,” one of the “Morning Pirates” hosts said on air at the time. The complaint is not upheld. 

October 2010: The Edge is fined $2000 after host Dom Harvey performed a jingle on The Morning Madhouse about a female public figure – who had recently entered a relationship with a woman – to the tune of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”:

“[Name is] into ladies, she’s giving guys up
Broke up with [Name], ’cause he’s a guy, decided men weren’t her thing
Didn’t need [Name], or any other fellow, wanted to go rug munching
She’s into chicks, got sick of dicks, wanted to try some new things
Met a nice girl, gave gay a whirl, and now what I really want to know
When they make love do they have to put a strap on it?
Has she ever thought about making a tape of it?
When they make love do they have to put a strap on it?”

The woman later said publicly that she was “really angry” about the parody song. Harvey is suspended without pay for one day. According to the BSA complaint, he “sarcastically stated how bad he felt about what he had done and wore a saint’s outfit” on his return to the show.

October 2010: Following historic allegations around a former All Black, The Rock’s The Morning Rumble hosts dissect the woman’s side of the story, including that the man at the centre of the allegations has been “stitched-up nicely” and that the woman would have been paid “heaps of money to run the story” in the media. “All I see is that that woman and her mate have cashed in at both ends,” one of the hosts say. “There’s a pun in there somewhere if you read between the lines.” A BSA complaint lodged around the exchange is not upheld. 

March 2012: Thane Kirby is suspended for a day without pay from George FM after telling a story about having sex with his partner when she was unconscious. Kirby told listeners his partner had recently come home from a hens night and began initiating physical intimacy in bed. He said he initially turned her down, but after she fell asleep he felt a “tingling” and had sex with her, likening his actions to “Uncle Bully” from Once Were Warriors. 

May 2013: The Edge’s Dom Harvey is forced to apologise after posting a tweet that connected a contestant on X Factor NZ with child rape as depicted in Once Were Warriors. “Poor Gracie!” he wrote of an eliminated contestant. “First molested in her own bed by Uncle Bully. And now kicked out of #xfactornz.” He deleted the tweet and apologised, saying that “it was supposed to be funny. On reflection, it was not. Sorry for any offence caused.”

June 2013: A BSA complaint is made but not upheld about the ZM Morning Crew game called “Racial Profiling” in which contestants were asked to decide the ethnicity of criminals based on their crimes. In discussion around a woman found with 645 pills inside her “various body cavities” one of the hosts said “I’m just generalising here, but I don’t think most Asian women would have enough room…” Later, one of the hosts guessed that a woman, who divorced her husband because the size of his genitalia meant he “was not satisfying her”, was Asian. 

August 2013: Dom Harvey apologises after accidentally sending a picture of his penis to Paralympic swimmer Sophie Pascoe, claiming the picture was intended for his radio producer who was also named Sophie. In his apology, which didn’t mention why he was sending a dick pic to his colleague, Harvey made reference to Pascoe’s role as an ambassador for Beef and Lamb, saying “so sorry about that Snapchat. I know you like beef and lamb … but nobody deserves a surprise pork sausage.”

July 2015: The Edge airs a gameshow called “What’s Your Cucumber Number?” in which an eliminated contestant from The Bachelor NZ is asked to see how far they can stick a cucumber down their throat. Snippets heard by The Spinoff at the time include “that is a pathetic amount of cucumber – I would say six centimetres” as well as innuendo around the woman’s sex life. “She’s fit, healthy and sporty, I bet she has five plus every day,” says Dom Harvey. “I bet you’ve never even had a cucumber before, have you?” says co-host Jay-Jay Feeney.  

September 2015: George FM hosts Thane Kirby and Kara Rickard are suspended from the station after labelling two women as “do-nothing bitches” during a segment called “social media intervention”. Rickard referred to them as girls who “post half-naked pictures on their instagram” and also called them “rank” and “hoes”. After one of the women rang in to defend herself, Kirby complimented her “spectacular breasts” saying he’d “love to feature you in our calendar”. George FM is fined $8000 by the BSA. 

The woman later told ONE News she received more than 100 sexually suggestive messages from men on her Instagram account as a result of the broadcast, and likened the exchange to “high school bullying.” A few days later, One News reported that another woman who rang to complain about sexism on the station earlier in the month was called a “filthy lesbian” off air by host Thane Kirby. MediaWorks rejected her account. 

May 2016: George FM comes under fire again after Thane Kirby asked The Bachelor NZ contestant Naz Khanjani a series of intimate and inappropriate questions while the cameraman filming the interview zoomed in on her chest. Some of Kirby’s questions included if Bachelor Jordan Mauger was “well hung”, whether Naz orgasmed on the show, and if her breasts were real or fake. “I would love to be the rebound boy,” Kirby said on air. “He’s in for a treat.”

August 2016: The Rock is found to have breached good taste and decency and responsible programming after an on-air stunt involving prime minister John Key and a bar of soap. During the broadcast, Key was invited to enter a cage in the studio and was asked by one of the hosts to “pick up the soap” before being complimented on his “pretty little mouth” – a reference to a rape scene in the movie Deliverance. The upheld complaint described the request as a “planned and deliberate” reference to rape which “normalised sexual violence, silenced survivors and trivialised the effects of sexual violence”.

August 2017: The Edge are found to have breached privacy and fairness by the BSA after recording and broadcasting a conversation with a local phone sex operator without her permission. The woman complained that her privacy was compromised as her family, friends and work colleagues were unaware of her “personal choice of industry”. The complainant explained that due to her voice and background noises during the call, she became identifiable to customers, family and friends. The woman alleged that the call caused her “emotional stress” and that she had suffered financial loss due to being unable to do her job. 

May 2020: Thane Kirby, now a DJ on Radio Hauraki, is “spoken to” by NZME bosses after suggesting that the Covid tracer app be used to contact “extremely attractive” women. A complaint is made to the BSA in the aftermath. “Given that Hauraki listeners are predominantly male, it may give people ideas,” the complainant wrote. “Even the thought of using personal information to contact people is disgusting.” Due to NZME being unable to locate the programme logs, the BSA could not make a ruling but acknowledged “the seriousness, in the current Covid-19 climate, of a radio host essentially undermining the importance of the contact-tracing system and suggesting it may be improperly exploited.”

New MediaWorks CEO Cam Wallace tells Duncan Greive about his first three months in the radio world in this episode of media podcast The Fold. Subscribe and listen to The Fold via Apple PodcastsSpotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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